Working at a financial planning firm teaches you to beware of scammers, if only because we often remind our clients not to fall for them. But a recent incident reminded me that anyone can be a fraud target.
Criminals have used fraud and deception to part victims from their money for centuries, but technology has made this process much simpler in some ways. An article from the Federal Trade Commission stated that the top fraud of 2017 was “imposter scams,” with nearly 350,000 reports to the FTC. Victims reported losing a collective $328 million to fraudsters pretending to be a loved one in trouble, a government worker, tech support or someone in a position of authority. These imposters use various tactics to defraud victims. For instance, imposters will pretend to be distressed relatives stuck in a distant country and will ask a target to wire them money so they can come home. In other cases, callers will threaten legal action against victims if they do not provide money.
At Palisades Hudson, we warn our clients not to fall for such scams, especially if they receive calls from the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS will never demand payment in the form of iTunes gift cards or similar payment mechanisms. But the fear that fraudsters seek to create can throw victims off balance, sometimes impairing their judgment. And now that the IRS has revived the practice of using private collection agencies, not every phone call pertaining to the Service will be fraudulent, though the IRS notes that taxpayers still should not receive unexpected phone calls demanding payment.
Even those of us who know better can wind up shaken by this sort of deception. I wrote a blog post not long ago detailing how to avoid falling for email scams and other internet fraud. Yet even with all my knowledge, I still almost became the victim of a phone-based “imposter scam.”
One Friday afternoon in December, I received a call from a local Colorado number I did not recognize. Typically I do not answer these calls, but both my daughter and I had seen the doctor that week and I was awaiting lab results. The caller claimed to be Deputy McNair from the Adams County Sheriff’s Office. He told me that there were two misdemeanor warrants out for my arrest because I had missed jury duty. According to the caller, the court had sent a jury summons on Sept. 5 and I had missed my date on Dec. 3, a little more than two weeks prior to the call. The “deputy” knew my full name and my address, and he told me that since I had no criminal record, he was willing to have me sign an affidavit at the sheriff’s office. He wanted me to bring two forms of ID and proof of address, and asked me how soon I could meet him. He also told me to call him before I drove down.
Naturally, I was extremely upset after this call. I was on my way to the substation in Commerce City before I decided to pull over and Google the phone number he had provided. I discovered that this caller had claimed to be an Adams County deputy before and had demanded money to make supposed warrants go away. Next I called my brother-in-law, who is a police officer in a neighboring city. He advised me that the call sounded fishy and that I should call the sheriff’s office to see if it was legitimate. I called the nonemergency line and filed a report, after which the dispatcher told me that a deputy would call shortly. The dispatcher also said that when the deputy called, he would use a blocked phone number. The first caller’s number had not been blocked.
Within a few minutes, a genuine Adams County deputy called me, as promised, from a blocked number. He told me that the call was probably a scam. First, there was no deputy in Adams County by the name of McNair. Second, had I genuinely had warrants out for my arrest, I would have been informed already and would not have first learned about it from a phone call. The deputy asked for some information so he could see if there were indeed any warrants for my arrest. There were not.
Later, I emailed the Adams County Courthouse and inquired if I should have received a jury summons in September. The jury commissioner emailed me back and said she had not sent one. She also told me that they do not have any potential jurors’ phone numbers, so no one would have called me about it. She asked me to report this incident to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Protection, which I did.
So what did this knucklehead want? What was his end goal? Was he just being a jerk and thought it was funny to send me on a wild goose chase? Would he have asked for money to make my warrants go away had I called him back? Was he waiting outside my house to rob it when he knew I was gone? Was he going to meet me at the address he gave (which turned out to be that of the actual Adams County substation) to try to hurt me? There are many possibilities, and I’m glad I did not actually meet him. Even in the best-case scenario, it would have been a waste of time.
I’d still like to call the scammer back and give him a piece of my mind, or maybe have my scariest friend call him instead. But friends in law enforcement, not to mention Palisades Hudson President Larry Elkin, advised me that no good would come from it. I blocked the phone number and did everything I could by reporting the scammer’s misdeeds to the proper authorities. His motives were most likely financially driven, and it’s hard to say if he is even in Colorado – most likely, he is spoofing the phone number and has hundreds more.
In the end, I didn’t lose anything from this encounter besides a bit of my time. (I may also have gained some gray hairs.) But I did learn an important lesson. Even though I had preached the dangers of scams to our clients, when I was faced with a scam myself, my first reaction was to appease the caller and do what he wanted in order to avoid unwanted consequences. Emotion, especially fear, can override logic in the moment.
If you receive this sort of call, it is important to take a step back. Think before you give any valuable information, such as your credit card number or Social Security number, to an unsolicited caller. The IRS, banks and credit card companies will never ask for any of this information over the phone. The IRS even provides information on their website regarding what they will and won’t do over the phone to help protect taxpayers from falling victim to phony shakedowns.
It may be hard to think logically when faced with the prospect of unwanted legal consequences or a desperate loved one trying to get home. I would encourage you to politely disconnect the phone call, then call the person or organization that the caller claimed to represent to check these claims yourself. Nigerian prince email scams, while still going strong, are only the tip of today’s fraud iceberg. Now, more than ever, it is important to think critically in order to protect your personal and financial information.